May 11, 2016

74 loci associated with educational attainment

Other than the claim in the abstract that educational attainment is "mostly environmentally determined" (*), this seems like a very useful study, as it identifies 74 loci associated with educational attainment and explores their interesting biology. 

The utility of this type of study does not consist so much in the ability to predict one's educational potential by looking at one's genotype (we're a long way off from that, and a traditional pencil-and-paper test will probably beat genetics for a long time to come). Rather, it helps move the culture forward, away from the polite ultra-egalitarianism of today's dominant worldview and towards a more scientific attitude concerning the limits of education. Such an attitude will necessarily acknowledge -whether it seems fair to us or not- that genes sometimes dictate that the smart but slothful kid should outperform his diligent but dull-witted peer.

It will certainly be very interesting to see what better methods or even larger sample sizes will bring in years to come.

(*) The heritability of educational attainment has been estimated to be 67-74% of Norwegian males of the 1940-1961 period. There is actually no "universal heritability" of a trait. In a third world country it may very well be that one's educational attainment is determined mostly by environmental effects such as whether you have access to a school within reasonable distance or to just enough food during development. In a modern country (like post-war Norway or a technologically advanced future utopia), environmental effects are expected to be minimal (as everyone will get the best of everything), and variation in educational attainment will simply be due to genes (+noise).

Nature (2016) doi:10.1038/nature17671

Genome-wide association study identifies 74 loci associated with educational attainment 

Aysu Okbay et al.

Educational attainment is strongly influenced by social and other environmental factors, but genetic factors are estimated to account for at least 20% of the variation across individuals1. Here we report the results of a genome-wide association study (GWAS) for educational attainment that extends our earlier discovery sample1, 2 of 101,069 individuals to 293,723 individuals, and a replication study in an independent sample of 111,349 individuals from the UK Biobank. We identify 74 genome-wide significant loci associated with the number of years of schooling completed. Single-nucleotide polymorphisms associated with educational attainment are disproportionately found in genomic regions regulating gene expression in the fetal brain. Candidate genes are preferentially expressed in neural tissue, especially during the prenatal period, and enriched for biological pathways involved in neural development. Our findings demonstrate that, even for a behavioural phenotype that is mostly environmentally determined, a well-powered GWAS identifies replicable associated genetic variants that suggest biologically relevant pathways. Because educational attainment is measured in large numbers of individuals, it will continue to be useful as a proxy phenotype in efforts to characterize the genetic influences of related phenotypes, including cognition and neuropsychiatric diseases.



wijjy said...

Educational achievement can be said to be entirely environmentally determined: if you don't go to school you don't pass examinations. It is entirely meaningless though.

Anonymous said...

"technologically advanced future utopia"

That ship has sailed long ago, see also Volkmar Weiss' "population cycle" theory. Most of those utopias -- like imagined by Kurzweil or Kaku -- are in fact quite dystopian.

Anonymous said...

now I know what G. Orwell meant when he said that some animals are more equal than the others. They 're just avoiding being ultra-egalitarianistic!